With the close of the school year, Pasco schools are bidding farewell to dozens of retiring teachers, staffers and administrators.
It's too early to say whether this year marks a larger class: The district is still receiving a steady stream of notifications from newly-minted retirees.
Superintendent Heather Fiorentino said she wishes everyone the best in their future, and in many ways she welcomes the opportunity — at least financially — to shed some of the district's highest salaries in tough budget times.
Yet she also worries that the district will suffer a brain drain as many top experienced educators and other employees choose to leave the system in accelerating numbers.
Here are the stories of some of Pasco's newest retirees.
• • •
Clay Verge, Hudson High School art teacher
Growing up in New York, Clay Verge never gave a thought to becoming a teacher.
Those were the kids who took seats in the front of the class, always paid attention, carried lots of books around and never played kickball at recess. "We would sit in the back and cut up," Verge recalled of his life as a student.
Even after finishing his bachelor's degree (not in education) at Saint Leo College, Verge intended to be an artist. He changed his path when a professor called him to recommend an art teaching job at Moore-Mickens Education Center in Dade City.
It was 1973, and Verge earned $1 an hour as a substitute, working as an orange packer for Lykes after classes to make ends meet until he could get his temporary certificate and begin his new career in earnest.
"It's been a long trip," he said. "And I like it. It's rewarding."
Over the past 37 years, Verge has seen his students win prestigious art awards, have their work placed in museums, find success in art-related professions. His main role?
"Mostly it's just building on their strengths that they didn't know they have," said Verge, 58. "Primarily, what I do especially their freshman year is, I put a great emphasis on teaching them how to see. … Once they learn how to see and see what they're capable of, that light bulb goes off."
Verge still thrives off his students' growth. But he decided to retire when he heard that some of the grandchildren of his earliest students were about to enter Hudson High.
"I don't want to be here when they say, 'Mr. Verge, you had my grandma,' " he said.
In retirement, Verge plans to stay close to Hudson High — he lives down the street — and to the art community. He's opening his own studio, where he plans to do his own work and invite past students to do pieces, too. He also expects to promote more art activities in and around Hudson.
That's when he's not off riding his motorcycle or seeking out some other adventure.
"You've gotta have some fun and you've gotta have some life," Verge said.
• • •
Lucy Decubellis, Gulf High secretary
While teachers spent the waning days of the school year cleaning our their classrooms at Gulf High, Lucy Decubellis collected good wishes and any educational donations she could muster to load in the truck parked at the side of the school.
"Books, desks, science materials — I'll take everything," she said, passing the word to any and all she encountered. "It's all for the school."
"The school" would be the Athenian Academy, Mrs. Decubellis' next stop, the charter school where her grandson, Jordan Smith, spends his school days. The plan from here on out is to rack up some good hours there volunteering.
"I'm retiring from Gulf," said Mrs. Decubellis, a 36-year veteran of the school district with a trademark smile. "But I'm not going to really retire. I'm going on to other things. I've already got my life all lined up."
Her career took her to a couple of schools before she landed at Gulf High — her alma mater.
She landed at the school as a sophomore, soon after she moved with her family from Baltimore to New Port Richey. That was back in the days when she was known as Lucy Jones and Gulf High was housed in the red brick building that is now Schwettman Education Center.
Mrs. Decubellis was one of 28 students to graduate as the class of 1948. (Check out her cheerleading picture here at fivay.org/images/ghs636.html.) In 1949 she married the late Albert Decubellis, the son of one of Pasco's founding families. Together they raised seven children.
Now the grandmother of 21 and great-grandmother of five says there will be no wallowing in a leisurely life. She's 78 years young so there's plenty more to do — traveling, volunteering — after her last day at Gulf on June 18.
"I just take each day as it comes and I thank God every morning that I'm still alive," Mrs. Decubellis said. "You get old and you can't just sit around. You've got to get involved."
• • •
Steve Cox, Moore-Mickens Education Center principal
Steve Cox can tell you stories about Pasco County schools.
He still remembers attending Dade City Elementary before it was renamed after his father, a former county schools superintendent. He recalls when Pasco High was just one of three county high schools, and the system had just 6,000 students — if that.
Since that time, Cox has watched the district boom in size and change in scope. Some of the same things that drew Cox, 58, to his parents' profession — he was the first Pasco High graduate to return to the school as an administrator — are the things that kept him passionate about education.
"My favorite thing will be this little school changes the lives of about 350 to 400 people a year through GEDs, through certified nursing assistants, through cosmetology, through high school graduation, through (Exceptional Student Education) graduates," said Cox, who retires in July after 15 years leading Moore-Mickens Education Center.
"Pasco High graduated 250 students the other night. Great ceremony," he said. "And that's what they are expected to do. We take the people that weren't successful going through that normal process, and we're able to get about 400 of them in east Pasco County through to something."
Cox, who has worked in the school district for 36 years, doesn't buy the notion that schools have gotten worse, or that students have become poorer learners with more distractions than in the past.
"There are a lot of kids in Pasco County today with a lot of big needs. There's no doubt about that. But I am not convinced that it's any different than it was 50 years ago. My reason is because 50 years ago they quit. At 13, 14, no one would go out and hunt them down," Cox said. "We now by law are required to keep those kids in school."
To become an administrator, Cox gave up some of his favorite hobbies, such as beekeeping and gardening. Now that he's retiring, he looks forward to enjoying the outdoors again. He's built a new greenhouse to grow Florida native plants. He looks forward to bicycling, fishing and even finally getting to see the fall colors in the North — a luxury that educators don't get because classes are in session.
The fun begins the day after his official retirement.
"As long as the good Lord is willing and the oil spill doesn't contaminate the gulf, I will be heading with my wife, one daughter and her husband, and some good friends for a week of lobstering in the Keys," he said, grinning broadly. "And I am ready for that like you wouldn't believe."
• • •
Mike Rom, Academy at the Farm director, and Lucille Rom, Pasco High career specialist
In between the retirement parties and end-of-year luncheons, Mike and Lucille Rom have been packing up their offices at two different schools. It's the last thing to get done before starting the next chapter of a life that started on Oct. 13, 1961, when the two were in eighth grade and Mike first asked Lucille to go steady.
They've been together ever since, racking up 43 years of marriage.
The couple settled here in the late 1960s, after Lucille finished her teaching internship at Pasco Junior High. They planned to head to Gainesville, where Mike would complete his master's degree at the University of Florida. But the principal was so impressed with Lucille that he offered her a position teaching math and he offered to hire her husband as an exceptional education teacher, sight unseen.
"We really were just stopping here on our way to Gainesville," Lucille said. "But we both fell in love with not only teaching, but Dade City as well. We loved the small town feeling. And it's so pretty here."
Lucille taught for three years before moving on to teach math and later work as a career specialist at Pasco High. She's been there ever since, serving as a mentor to students and teachers alike — overseeing reading programs, staff development and scholarship programs.
Of course there was no desire to go elsewhere.
"I love Pasco High," she said. "We always say we're the best kept secret in Pasco County. There's a lot because of parent support. A lot of community support. Many of our parents came to this school so there's a lot of pride, a lot of tradition and a lot of respect for the school and the teachers."
Mike, in turn, stayed to become dean of students at Pasco Junior High, then took a position at Pasco High as assistant principal. After 23 years at Pasco-Hernando Community College — first as a psychology professor, then as a provost — he became director of Academy at the Farm, an inclusive charter school in Dade City.
"We've been here for a long time," Mike said. "Some of my oldest students are 56 to 57 years old now."
In fact, he added, one of his former students, Florida's former Secretary of State, Kurt Browning, recently emceed at Mike's retirement party.
"We taught when there was no air conditioning, no computers in the schools," Lucille said. "I taught during segregation."
Now, Mike said, "We're realizing that we're chaperoning dances alongside people we used to chaperone when they were students years ago." It's time to move on.
The couple plans to relax at their fishing cabin in the Panhandle, travel to Alaska and spend time with their six grandchildren.
Mike is contemplating a part-time position at PHCC. But Lucille is done.
"Turning 62 this year made me think," Lucille said. "It's not that I feel old. It's just that it made me realize that life isn't forever. Teaching, to do it well, takes so much out of you and there's the tendency to put all your eggs in one basket. Now's the time to put some of those eggs in my family's basket."
And so Pasco High sent her off with an "I Love Lucy" party complete with Elvis impersonator and a scholarship in her name to be given out each year to a Pasco High grad.
It was, she said, the best gift ever.